Technology is everywhere today. Our interactions with the world and with one another are mediated by computers, tablets and smart phones. The answer to practically any question you might have, at any moment, is a few keystrokes and a millisecond away. In the same way, technology changed how humans perceive information, and now it has flipped the educational world on its head.
Preparing students for the future, demands that education be delivered in a vastly different manner than what we’ve seen in U.S. schools thus far. In this world where information creation and discovery are taking place faster than we can bring that information to our classrooms, true 21st century learning must involve more than information literacy alone.
Certainly, the traditional “3 Rs”, a shorthand way to talk about traditional content areas like reading, writing and arithmetic, play a core role in the 21st century classroom. But in this new world, those “content domains” become avenues for imparting a whole array of 21st century skills; skills that will allow students to function, learn and adapt throughout life in this post-modern world.
The Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21), one of a number of organizations advocating for a revamped educational system, says that for our young people to be able to compete in the global economy, they need more than the 3 Rs; a new “4 Cs” are also required. These 4Cs are: Critical thinking and problem solving, Communication, Collaboration, and Creativity and innovation.
Similarly, the National Research Council of the National Academies of Science in Washington, DC breaks the same idea down into three areas:
Cognitive skills: critical thinking and analysis
Interpersonal skills: teamwork and communication
Intrapersonal skills: resiliency, reflection and contentiousness
In the same way that handwriting is a skill that crosses every domain, likewise our students need these essential 21st Century skills if they are to be successful.
P21 has taken the lead to construct and advocate for the adoption of the 21st century framework that has become a touchstone among education leaders across the nation. This framework offers an elaborate vision that brings core subject knowledge together with creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication skills; life and career skills; and information, media and technology skills.
While they are not in the majority, many districts and schools, have taken the lead and implemented 21st Century teaching and learning. So, what do these settings really look like?
According to 21st Century Schools, such settings will be enhanced with a project-based curriculum for life aimed at engaging students in addressing real-world problems, issues important to humanity, and questions that matter. When true 21st Century learning is taking place:
- Schools stop being buildings defined by walls and times of day; they transform into community “nerve centers.” Walls become porous and transparent, and teachers and students become connected to the outside world, from the immediate surrounding community to people and knowledge across the planet.
- Teachers stop being dispensers of data and become something more similar to coaches, imparting skills that help students become not just content experts, but expert learners.
- Learners are excited by flexible, open-ended, project-based, real-world learning situations that not only teach content skills, but instill curiosity, which is fundamental to lifelong learning, develop communication and teamwork skills, and the freedom and responsibility that comes from taking charge of their own learning.
When we can look at a school and see these things happening in sync, we can be confident that the students are getting the great education they’ll need in the future. Creating 21st Century classrooms, schools and districts is no small order, but it is being done across the nation.
If you are one of those forward-thinking people who is reading this and saying, “It sounds amazing, but it’s just too much to undertake given our resources,” think again. If you are an educator, ask yourself, what is one small change I could make that might transform my students’ experience?
Could you try grouping students more often for more team-based learning? Or embed the teaching of a math skill within the hands-on study of pond ecology? Or study an aspect of Chinese culture by setting up a virtual student exchange connecting students with their counterparts in Asia via Skype?
Once we begin to consider the possibilities of the 21st Century classroom, our schools become more than just places for preparing students for the next level of education. They become places where we truly prepare and empower learners for lifelong success and personal fulfillment.
And as educators, isn’t that our real goal?
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